Based in the village of Congy, Olivier Collin comes from a family of vinegrowers who have been active in the Coteaux du Petit Morin since 1812. Georges Collin was the first Récoltant Manipulant in Congy; he started in 1930 and received awards from the French Ministry of Agriculture. Following the second world war, René Collin (Olivier’s grandfather) grew the estate to 18 hectares of vines, began producing his own Champagne blends and was an esteemed member of the "Club des Viticulteurs Champenois" until the 1980’s (it now goes by "Club Trésors de Champagne"). But in 1987, Olivier’s father sold the company and began renting the entirety of the family’s vines and cellar to a big Champagne brand, effectively ending independent production.
As a young student, Oliver took what ended up being a life-changing trip to Burgundy. It was a truly introspective experience and he instantly fell in love with the wines of the region. Stunned by the singularity of the various climats and the particularities of the wines tasted in the Côte de Beaune, this sparked the desire to not only reclaim his family land back but, as we will discuss later, greatly influence his work philosophy. He began law school in 1995 with the secret intention of using his acquired knowledge to accomplish the challenging task of reclaiming 8.7 hectares back from a big négociant. Almost a decade later, when it looked like it was actually going to happen, Olivier did a six month formation in viticulture (all the while continuing his studies in law) followed by a six week stage at an estate in Champagne.
In 2003, Olivier successfully recovered 4.5 hectares that had been rented out for a generation. Starting from scratch, his first purchase was a second-hand tractor so he could work soils that had not been plowed in 18 years. His second investment consisted of used Burgundy barrels (at least four years old) because he felt the vin clair had to be made in oak. 2003 proved to be very challenging year: there was a severe frost on April 11th followed by a record breaking heatwave in the summer that forced harvest to start on August 23rd. Olivier decided to sell off all of the grapes from this extreme and unbalanced vintage to stay solvent and prepare his first real vinification at the newly formed estate.
Along came the 2004 vintage, which broke all records for high yields in Champagne. Olivier vinified Chardonnay grapes from a 1.2 hectare plot called Les Pierrières where the vines are around 40 years old. It has a shallow, poor topsoil 10 to 50 cm deep over the rocky subsoil of soft «Campanian» chalk with carbonated silex or Onyx, a rare geological combination in Champagne found specifically in Coteaux du Petit Morin and key to the Ulysse Collin Champagnes' unique expressions. The exposure is south-southeast. His first release was 5 400 bottles exclusively from this vineyard.
If you don't know the Coteaux du Petit Morin, Olivier hopes to change that. The region, still in the Marne but south of the Grand Crus in the Côte des Blancs, is little known but of great geological distinction and history (if you speak French, we highly encourage you to watch the following documentary on the subject). To promote his native terroirs, for three years Olivier acted as president of the region as well as vice-president of the Coteaux du Sézannais in order to build defend and promote the historical, cultural and geographic identity of both these underappreciated regions.
Despite Champagne’s historical notoriety for multi-parcel, multi-vintage blends, Olivier’s fascination with Burgundy led him to wonder if the model of expressing unique sites and climats could translate to his native terroirs. From the beginning, his vision was thus to only release single vineyard expressions of his land. While this idea has gained traction in Champagne over the years, it was all but unheard of at the time and still remains relatively rare. In this sense Olivier is a true pioneer. And to this day, Ulysse Collin is the only estate in Champagne to release 100% of its wines as single vineyards expressions.
In 2005, Olivier got back an additional 4.2 hectares of vines, three of which belonged to his grandparents, along with the whole winemaking facility (including the estate’s historical Coquard press) and aging cellar. New wines soon followed. Olivier made a second Champagne in 2006, a Blanc de Noirs from a two hectares plot called Les Maillons near the town of Sézanne in the coteaux du Sézannais (another sub region of Champagne located in the South of Coteaux du Petit Morin). The soils there are very different (clays rich in iron), but had been worked like Les Pierrières since 2003. Following Les Maillons was Les Maillons Rosé de Saignée and later he would release Les Roises and Les Enfers, two neighboring parcels of Chardonnay with different expositions in his village of Congy (both plots are 62 hares and a much smaller part of the annual production). Today, Olivier currently vinifies the equivalent of 5.3 hectares of the 8.7 he owns, selling the rest of the grapes or juices he does not want for his own production to négociants. Annual production is around 50 000 bottles.
The cellar work has evolved greatly over the years. From 2004 to 2011, only Burgundian barrels were used and the wines were released as single vintages with small additions of reserve wine. During this time, the elevages in barrel progressively got longer: 10 months in 2004, 12 in 2005, 13 in 2006… By 2012, Olivier began intentionally holding back large amounts of each vintage back, culminating in a current 18 foudres of reserve wine, the equivalent of a full harvest in a plentiful vintage. These vary in size depending on the parcel they store (10, 12, 20 and 30 hectoliters).
These reserve wines are not solera but rather vins clairs from the previous two vintages. Depending on the current year's crop, Olivier will blend as much or as little of the three vintages to find the most complex expression possible. For a recent example, the 2015 base of Les Maillons is 50% 2015, 50% reserve wine (80% 2014, 20% 2013). In 2019 (a plentiful vintage), 70% of the year's juices will probably be destined to reserve wines. While the goal is to have the freshest year dominate the blend, there are no set rules.
"It's a great liberty to be able to work this way, to let a vintage evolve and use it at the right time or to use it when I need it. The expression of a vintage is always interesting, but you are trapped with the good and the bad of that year. I want to make the best possible expression of my vineyards at any given time, and to me that means going beyond vintage.”
All fermentations occur in Burgundian barrels. The majority are old, but in exceptional vintages 10 to 25% of new oak barrels enter the rotation. Alcoholic fermentation takes as long as it needs (sometimes up to six months) and is followed by malolactic fermentation. Tartaric precipitations occur under natural cold conditions, and the wine is not fined or filtered before the secondary fermentation in bottle. The vins clairs tend to be 11% or 11.5%, giving them a vinous complexity.
Going against the trend of releasing earlier and earlier, Olivier has followed a path of long aging to enhance the quality of his wines’ aromatic complexity. One bottling occurs every year in July and one disgorgement in March. Les Maillons stays 36 months sur lattes before release. Les Pierrières has been disgorged at 36 months historically but has passed to 48 months starting with the 2015 base. Les Enfers and Les Roises went from 36 to 48 months sur lattes in 2013, though a first release of the 2014 bases will be released with 60 months of aging, the trajectory they expect for these cuvées in coming years. Some special bottles have been disgorged after 96 or even 124 months. This information was previously listed on each backlabel; in 2020 the front labels will now indicate the sur lattes aging with a «Vieillissement en cave de X mois» and the base year on the backlabel.
Olivier is a firm believer that dosage is important to the final balance of a Champagne and essential for it to age gracefully over an extended period of time. Dosage has varied over the years, but has always been low. Through experimentation, Olivier has become a fan of 1.7G or 2.4 G dosage and is likely the only Champagne producer to use these specific measurements. This however is not an absolute or a formula, and higher or lower dosages could hypothetically be applied.
In the vines, plowing contributes to "feeding the soil to feed the vines" and represents the majority of the vineyard work. Olivier will let grass grow from August to March, but for a four month period will do four to five superficial tillings to avoid competition but also to integrate organic compost to the soil. Herbicides or anti-rot products are not used, only powdered sulfur against odium and an organic insecticide against ver de la grappe (a type of tiny caterpillar that eats berries and causes gray rot). While Olivier isn’t against organic viticulture (he attempted to convert in 2012), he feels that the climate of Champagne is too unforgiving for it. He therefore permits himself, in cases of severe mildew attacks, to combat them with chemical compounds.
This interview with Olivier Collin stems from an email exchange in October 2010.
How did you get into wine?
The Collin family has been working the vineyards of Congy since 1812.
As for myself, my passion for wine began as an amateur and a drinker, a path which ultimately led me to seek out "alternative" and original wines. My lineage and passion made it a natural transition into a career.
What was happening with the estate before you took over?
My father rented his vines to a négociant until 2003. I began studying law in 1995 in hopes of legally re-obtaining the family estate when the time was right.
Between 2001 and 2003, I discreetly began an apprentissage at Selosse while also studying law in Nancy as well as viticulture in Bordeaux. At the time I wasn't sure if I'd ever be a vigneron; you don't regain a 8,7 hectare estate from a négociant that easily…
The man spoke of and intellectualized a type of viticulture which just didn't exist in Champagne: biodynamic. At my own pace, I began understanding his work methods. Over time I came to realize that working in this fashion confirmed what I already believed to be "wines of Terroir".
By November 2002 we began trying to regain our estate from the négociant which was shutting down on March 22nd, 2003. The heavy frost of April 11th made it impossible for me to keep the few grapes of this first vintage, thus 2004 was my first vintage as a vigneron.
What is your work process like in vines? What do you think of your terroirs?
When we took over from the négoce, the land wasn't in great shape; my initial impulse was to re-plow with my first major investment: a tractor. For me, plowing is an evident necessity for making wines of Terroir.
Fundamentally, I distinguish between the protection of the vegetal leaf from illness and the vitalization of the roots and the rhizosphere by working the soil. Even though this forces us to stay vigilant in regards to what products we use, for me the way a wine tastes stems from the clay and mineral composition of the soil, more precisely from the "interface" of the roots and the healthy circulation of the plant's sap. This is why I feel so strongly about keeping a steady and dynamic stimulation of microbiological activity in the soil.
For me, protection of the foliage is an afterthought; it doesn't really affect the quality of the soil’s minerals [mineral salts] that the plant feeds on. To do so is a pragmatic approach in winemaking in which you place more importance in the gustative "quality" of your wine than the sanitary "quality" of your grapes.
Why don't I use copper (in its sulfite or hydroxide form) against mildew and use more conventional products? To protect from fungi with copper is aleatory and risky in our region. Copper is a sterilizer that soaks through the leaf, which eventually falls to the ground, which absorbs it: I've noticed this cycle tends to decrease microbiological activity. Therefore one would need to use very small quantities of copper to limit its effect on the soil. Because of the propensity of mildew in Champagne, this remains extremely difficult in our region and I have the utmost respect for those that succeed in doing so.
We never use the tractor after the harvest because the grass that has grown during the summer helps detoxify the soil.
After reflecting on my parcels I began shaping the 3 cuvées I make today. 3 cuvées made in the same spirit but with strong individual personalities. There is still a lot of work to do but the lasting impression I've had since 2003 seems to be pushing the Terroirs in the right direction. Everything can be perfected.
What about the vinification process?
My vinification process is an attempt to reveal the true personalities of each parcel in function of its history. I do my best to respect the identity of each parcel with a minimum of intervention. The barrels, the fermentation, the absence of filtration and a low dosage lead me to believe that we are coherent in a calculated aesthetic that corresponds to the style of the estate.
How do you feel about Champagne as a region?
It's an industrialized region which could benefit greatly from real artisanal work. There are good wines in Champagne, made with the heart and soul of those who make them. I respect these wines and consider myself in this category.
What are kind of wines are you trying to make?
I create nothing. I accompany the forces of nature.
We don't make "name" wines but rather wines of Terroir, wines where the vigneron does not impose his personal preferences; instead we try to accentuate the personality of the parcels. I truly respect the spirit of Terroir: the internal structure of these wines lies in the individuality of my parcels.
What about tradition?
Tradition (traditio in Latin), is a passage on from hand to hand of "savoir faire". I do not work like my father or my grandfather. Maybe my great grandfather worked this way: horses, manual plowing, specific barrels, indigenous yeasts and no modern oenology. In the end we never created anything, we just found a way to work. Through wine, we search for our roots...
What wines do you like to drink besides your own?
Chablis for white.
Vosne-Romanée and Volnay for reds.
This visit with Olivier Collin took place in January, 2015.
Words by Jules Dressner, photos by Noah Oldham, David Sink, Patrick Cappiello and Josefa Concannon.
Olivier Collin is a meticulous man in the cellar. Everything starts with this incredible manual press:
Yes, that is in fact a divine light shining on to me.
This is one of the first presses in the village of Congy. It was built in the 1950's, and the whole village used to use it. During harvest, it is hand operated by 4 people for 12 days, 18 hours a day.
"It's a lot more work, but for me it is fundamental: you extract more matter, tannins, anti-oxidants and it permits the wines to age longer. It may be hard to taste when the wine is young, but they become sublime later on."
Using a manual press forces Olivier to harvest at a higher maturity than if he used a pneumatic one, because otherwise the wine would take on bitter characteristics. The Chardonnay is pressed separately from the Pinot Noir, and all in all 4000 kg of grapes produce about 2050 liters of jus de presse (first juice) and 500l of jus de taille (2nd juice). Notice the numbers on each of these underground tanks?
Olivier meticulously keeps first and second juices from each pressing separately: the first press goes into the cuves 2-5, and he manually deviates the jus de tailles into cuve 1.
After press, Olivier pumps the juices into the débourbage vats pictured below.
The juices are left overnight and sometimes a bit longer to let the juice settle. Olivier likes the juice to be very clear and free of bourbes ("gross lees") because you never know what can be in there.
According to Olivier, many independent growers in Champagne choose to discard their jus de taille and sell them to négociants. This is why many "Champagnes de taille" are usually what ends up in supermarkets. In the case of the Ulysse Collin wines, Olivier feels that the jus de presse gives the wine its backbone and structure -permitting it to age longer- and the jus de taille makes the wine a little stronger, richer and adds gourmandise. Because the second juices are more murky and fragile, Olivier keeps them separated from the first juice at least 1 year before blending.
The entirety of the Ulysse Collin production is fermented and aged in barrel.
Olivier is not a fan of new oak, but new barrels are out of necessity syphoned in every year to replace the old ones. Another major development in the cellar is Olivier's recent investment in foudres, which have been used since the 2011 vintage.
If you're not familiar with the Ulysse Collin wines, sites are not blended and each cuvée is parcel specific. Today, Olivier produces four wines from four sites: Les Maillons, Les Pierrières, Les Roises and Les Enfers. And while vintage and reserve wine is important to the final product, this is not what Oliver is seeking to accomplish with his Champagnes.
"When you work this way (vinifying specific parcels), the goal is not to express the vintage or the percentage of reserve wine. I want you to taste the parcel, to taste its DNA."
Nothing is set in stone, but about 20 to 40% of each year's juices go into his reserve wines.
NON-SEQUITUR FACTOID: The limestone suboils in Congy feature the same type of rare black flint you spot at François Pinon's in Vouvray!
From the cellar, Oliver manually disgorged some 2014's for us to taste.
Before tasting, we took a quick stroll to go visit Les Roises and Les Enfers.
Les Roises and Les Enfers are neighboring parcels, with the former exposed full South and the latter exposed East. The soils for both parcels are clay topsoils and limestone subsoils, though les Roises has a almost twice as much clay.
Walking through Les Enfers, Olivier grabbed this plant from the soil:
It is called Le Mouron des Oiseaux, which might just be the frenchest thing I've ever heard.
"When you see this plant, you know your soils are doing well. It's a bio-indicator that proves there is healthy microbiology in the soil."
As we've discussed before, Olivier isn't 100% convinced with organic viticulture, at least not in Champagne. He tried working les Roises organically in 2012 and lost 80% of his crop.
"I admit 2012 was the wrong year to launch myself into working organically. But I really believe that is is extremely difficult working 100% organically in Champagne's conditions. As an aside, one thing I notice about organic Champagne is they tend to taste more bitter to me. I believe this is because the use of copper increases the thickness of the skins, and I feel it is evident in the wine. I still believe that the most important thing anyone can do in the vineyard is work the soils."
For protection, Olivier mostly sprays the vines with silica. However, if he sees a sickness taking place, he will intervene with Pecadeux, a non-systemic product that is legally allowed in German organics but not in France.
"I don't believe in treating my vineyards with with systemic products. But I also don't believe in letting my vines suffer greatly from illness. I treat them like I would treat myself: if I'm really not feeling well, I will take antibiotics to get better."
Of course, we then tasted the 2014's, which were obviously very young but already showing great promise. We were also treated to the one-time-only Le Magnum, a relic from 2006 vintage.
This visit at Ulysse Collin took place in July 2013.
Words by Jules Dressner, photos by Maya Pedersen and Jules Dressner.
Olivier and Sandra Collin have a beautiful yard.
After some chatty retrouvailles, Olivier asked us if we were pressed on time. We weren't, so he proposed taking us to the somewhat far-away parcel Les Maillons, a site none of us had ever visited. It sounded like a great idea, so we got into our cars and took the half an hour drive to get there.
In true journalistic fashion, I spent the whole drive asking questions and furiously jotting down answers, an un-obvious feat on bumpy country roads where familiar drivers tend to put the pedal to the metal.
While the most talented of you might be able to decipher that, I'll retype it just in case.
As we'd soon find out, hail was at the tip of everyone's tongue this year. Including Olivier's:
"It's scary, and the problem is that insurance only covers grapes, not wine!"
This was right after the Vouvray hailstorm (but before the recent 5 000 hectare disaster in the Southwest), and perhaps the most terrifying thing that can happen to a vigneron. No chance to fight back, just total losses. Our own François Pinon lost 5 hectares, which he talks about in this French news piece that aired shortly after the storm.
The prospect of a small crop in 2013 is especially daunting for vignerons in Northern France, a majority of whom suffered from hail, frost, mildew or all three, resulting in microscopic yields in 2012. Fortunately, Olivier didn't suffer from heavy losses, and even found some positive in the situation.
"The one positive thing about 2012: low yields. The grapes were damaged, but the ones left had incredible concentration. Their optimal ripeness produced great wines."
We also discussed Olivier's long term experimentation with biodynamics. After five years, he is not convinced:
"I try to do what I understand. The one thing where I can biologically see the results of my labor is working the soils. The fermentations in the ground mineralize the rock, which assimilate into the plant."
It's for this very reason he refuses to work with herbicides.
"But you need to work on the soils at the right time. If you're consistently plowing, you will bring too much harmful nitrogen, which will dilute the wines."
After all that driving and chatting, we finally made it to Les Maillons!
Les Maillons is a lieu-dit totaling 6 h, all in Pinot Noir. Olivier owns 2,5 of these, which produces the cuvée of the same name.
Everything is planted in massale. The soils here are heavy clay (much darker than in Congy) with limestone chalk subsoils.
The vines are 41 years old and exposed east. This produces great acidities from the sun. As I mentioned earlier, it's about a 30 minute drive from Congy, but more impressively it takes Olivier 2 hours EACH WAY to get there on the tractor!
There are very few independent growers in Olivier's region, and almost everybody sells to the négoce. Since people only sell grapes and care about weight, no one works the soils except him.
"You get paid by the amounts of grapes you sell, not your viticultural merit."
We then drove back to Congy to taste! As of the 2008 vintage, Olivier has started bottling the wines with parcel names. Les Pierrières is all Chardonnay from 3 separate parcels, all vinified separately. With only 1.7 g dosage, it's 90% 2009, 10% 2008.
"When you bottle reserve wines from the same parcel with each other, you get very interesting complexities."
Les Maillons is all Pinot Noir from 2009, and one of the most unique Champagnes I've ever tasted. I don't even know how to describe it, but it was a truly inspiring bottle.
Olivier always sulfurs 50mg right after press, then lets the rest of the vinification occur without any intervention.
"I'd rather do that than put 20 mg and feel obliged to play catch up."
Les Roises is all Chardonnay, also 90% 2009 and 10% 2008. It also has the very low dosage of 1.7 g,
"The 1.7 g of sugar seems like nothing, but it completely balances the wine, lets it fully express itself."
It's true! All the 10's we tried felt a lot stricter and less alive without their dosage.
"Blanc de Blanc Extra Brut":
Soil: Chalk and clay top soil (50cm), soft clay and carbonated flint subsoil (rare in Champagne)
Vinification: fermented 6 to 8 months in small oak casks. Aged 13 months, with no fining or filtering. Then aged on lees (sur lattes) for 24 to 36 months.